On Writing “Garbage”

December 15, 2020 Sara 0 Comments

I write every day.* Like Cal Newport and Neil Gaiman, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Either I’m writing or I’m not writing, and mostly, I’m writing.

Writing is not a natural state. It’s not particularly comfortable. My happiness does not depend on it. Writing is a process, like meditation or exercise, and it is work. Yes, some days are easier than others. Those flow states are an essential reprieve. The rest is just — struggle. This isn’t a complaint. I have no expectations or desires for this to be “easy.” I understand the reality of my profession, and I’ve grown to accept it.

Most of what I write is garbage.

There. I said it. Maybe it sounds harsh. And maybe it is.

I know that when I say this during talks and lectures, I am met by a lot of sighs, clucks, blank stares. Some people simply don’t believe me; others presume I’m being modest. Still others are likely wondering, Then why bother?

Recently I stumbled on this blog post by Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist: “Quantity Leads to Quality (the origin of a parable).” I’d never heard of the parable he mentions, but it immediately rang true.

I throw a good portion of my word count away. “Garbage” is a catch-all term, of course. A portion of what I produce is recycled — revised, reused, cut & pasted — and a lot of the refuse I churn out is composted. That is, I drag it into a big file (appropriately labeled COMPOST) where it undergoes some strange process of alchemy, transforming from scraps into the rich base from which I coax new stories.

My most recent publication, a short story called “MIA” (published by Meetinghouse), went through an extreme recycling process, inhabiting at least 10 progressively refined versions. I handwrote the first draft when I was pregnant with my youngest. He just turned two-years-old last month. Like I said, it’s a process.

(Lest you fret at all this news of the garbage us writers are producing, I’ll admit that the version of “What Shines from It” published by Qu Literary took about two weeks to get out, start to finish. It felt like a gift. There are gifts in the garbage, as any city dweller will remind you.)

The parable mentioned in Kleon’s post is applied to both pottery and photography, and he also applies it to writing. I can’t think of anything more true, or anything I want to stress more to beginning writers. Don’t rush perfection! Write, write, write. Throw (most of) it away! Write, write, write.

You get the picture.

And, hey, in time, you’ll get to perfection.

*Yes, I mean every day. Every day. This includes Xmas, my birthday, my kids’ birthdays, Fourth of July, etc. If I skip a day, things get gnarly.

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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